ABOVE PHOTO: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., speaks at the Let Freedom Ring ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in Washington, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was 50 years ago today when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the memorial. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
By Roland S. Martin
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with all civil rights organizations, have been in a tremendous quandary since the election of President Barack Obama: How do you oppose something advocated by the nation’s first black president and not get vilified by your own constituents?
Forget what any of these politicians or civil rights leaders say publicly. I know what they’ve said privately: When they say anything deemed remotely negative or in opposition to Obama, they are considered traitors to the black community and must walk in step with whatever he wants to do.
That’s why it was gutsy — and surprising — when Rep. John Lewis, and civil rights icons, Revs. Joseph Lowery and C.T. Vivian, held a news conference in Atlanta in December to blast President Obama’s selection of six nominees to the federal bench in Georgia and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The choices by Obama were made in deals cut with the four Republican senators from Georgia and Alabama, with no input from any Black Caucus members from those states.
The inclusion of Lewis, Lowery and Vivian in this fight was surprising to some — they have been ardent supporters of Obama, protecting his flank on numerous issues, even his support of same-sex marriage. Lowery, who previously made clear he was against the issue, changed after Obama said in 2012 he was now in favor of gay marriage.
But when it came to cutting a deal with Republican senators to put what they termed as conservative jurists on the federal bench for lifetime appointments, they said enough is enough.
Yet even in their condemnation of the appointments, they were careful to not lay blame at the feet of the president.
“We’ve not come to attack the president. Somebody did this for him,” said Lowery, putting the blame on the president’s staff. “And we say that he must undo it. It is insulting to come into Georgia in 2013 and bring a slate of nominees that is so unrepresentative of the state.”
What galls the Black Caucus, Lowery, Lewis and the others, is that African Americans voted at unprecedented levels for Obama, with black women voting at a higher rate than any other group in 2008 and 2012. Critics in Georgia say they were offended that the lone black choice in the state was that of a Republican woman they’ve never heard of.
Their ire is also directed at Obama nominee Mark Cohen, who defended the Georgia voter ID law, an issue that has been ardently opposed by Black Caucus members and civil rights groups. They have also taken their aim at Judge Michael Boggs of the Georgia Court of Appeals for voting to keep the Confederate symbol on the Georgia state flag.
On Jan. 16, the CBC sent a letter to Obama expressing their displeasure with the appointments, especially in Alabama.
“In Alabama, there are three federal judicial districts consisting of 14 judgeships. Two of the 14 judgeships are vacant resulting in 12 sitting judges with only one of those being African American,” the letter says.
“To put this issue in greater context, 64 judges have served on Alabama’s District Court bench since districts were first established in 1824.
Of this number, only three have been African American. In the 33 years since President Jimmy Carter appointed the first two African American federal judges in Alabama, there have been 26 judicial appointments in the state and only one was African American; your appointment of Judge Abdul Kallon in 2009.”
Last week, four Black Caucus members met with Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett. White House officials have made clear they have no plans to pull the nominations, but Black Caucus members are still not satisfied, and are deciding what to do next.
Yet a new group has stepped up to lend their voice to the attack on one of the conservative Obama nominees: NARAL Pro-Choice America.
NARAL is incensed that Obama has chosen to elevate Boggs to the bench.
“President Obama has asked the Senate to confirm a judicial nominee who tried to channel funds to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers and make a parental consent law even more extreme,” NARAL says on its website.
“Judges hold an incredible responsibility when they take the bench. Americans need to trust them to take an objective view of the law and not use their position to advance their personal agenda. Michael Boggs showed us his true personal agenda as a state lawmaker, and we can’t trust him with our rights.”
It pains Black Caucus members and civil rights groups to publicly oppose the president, but that’s what they are supposed to do. Even though he is the first black president, that doesn’t mean you walk in lock step. The litmus test should be the same for a white Democratic or Republican president: If you think he’s wrong, then you stand on principle and not party.
The White House knows full well that Obama enjoys a virtual “he-can-do-no-wrong” status in the Black community. But in Jan. 2017, he will leave the White House for good. And these federal judges he appoints today, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will be around for the next 20 to 30 years. So whatever political deal the president has cut today is irrelevant.
I’ve been told by numerous sources that the White House is putting tremendous pressure on Lewis and Lowery to back off their public demands. Rep. David Scott of Georgia has been unrelenting in his attacks on the president’s nominees, but administration officials don’t see him as a threat.
But Lewis, Lowery and Vivian are different. They represent civil rights royalty; the former worked closely alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King while the latter two were his lieutenants. All three men marched, were arrested and shed blood for civil rights, voting rights and social justice. They have committed their lives to preventing such judges from wielding power. And when they speak, people on both sides of the aisle listen.
If these nominees are going to be stopped, Lewis, Lowery and Vivian must lead the way, assisted by the Congressional Black Caucus and others.
For these black leaders, they have to make a critical decision: Is it more important to support the first black president or stand their ground on principle? Only they can answer that call to conscience.
Roland S. Martin is senior political analyst for TV One and author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as Originally Reported by Roland S. Martin.” Please visit his website at www.RolandSMartin.com. To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.